What is VAR you may ask? VAR is an acronym for video assistant referee. It is a team of people who sit in a room surrounded by screens. There will be a former or current elite referee in charge of the group who will speak to the in-game referee over the headset that is now commonplace for match officials.
The VAR team can contact the referee saying that a review of an incident is necessary. This will be used when the match referee has missed something or made a supposedly clear error.
The power still remains with the referee on the pitch for the most part, however. They can call on VAR when necessary – as we saw frequently in Liverpool versus West Bromwich Albion last weekend – and take time to consult the team in front of the monitors. As we saw for the first time in that match too, referees can also walk to the touchline to look at replays on their very own monitor.
Currently, four decisions can be reviewed: Goals, mistaken identity, penalties and red cards. Anything that happens in the lead up to a goal can be referred, and – as we are hearing so frequently – it has to be a ‘clear error’ for the VAR to overturn the on-field decision.
Where is it used?
VAR was first witnessed at the Confederations Cup last summer. Serie A and the Bundesliga jumped at the opportunity to introduce the system to their leagues, and have been using it throughout the 2017/18 season.
We first saw VAR when Brighton played Crystal Palace in the Third Round of the FA Cup. It has since been used in multiple FA and Carabao Cup ties, though it is not yet being used universally in the Cup competitions because of facility issues.
While it’s obviously not right to only use it for some matches in a given competition, these are the conditions of the trial. The trial that is splitting football fans across Europe. It is polarising swathes of people associated with the world’s most popular sport.
Why is VAR used?
Such a seismic change was always going to attract controversy. The VAR-debate is already routine, and that’s not something we can expect to change any time soon.
The premise of it is simple: assist referees in making the correct decisions. This multi-billion pound sport spends such a chunk of time critiquing referees, the idea is that VAR will not only minimise that, but make each contest ‘fairer’.
Football has taken far longer than its contemporaries to accept technology. American football, baseball, basketball, cricket, rugby and tennis have all assisted their officials long before football finally introduced VAR. The fluidity of the sport makes VAR more disruptive than hawk eye in tennis and cricket or replay booth referrals in the NFL, however, which contributed to the delay and controversy.
That is one of the primary criticisms thrown at VAR. Football is fast-paced, stopping for a referee to chat to another official that the crowd cannot see does not fit so smoothly into the play. Also, football’s clock continues even while a review is being carried out, unlike in other sports. Maybe that means it’s time FIFA took the idea of a stop clock more seriously?
Just like a stop clock, VAR might lead to further change. The teething troubles could – hopefully – point out other flaws with the sport. There are necessary adaptations required for VAR to work more smoothly than it has thus far, but there’s no denying it has improved refereeing outcomes. In that sense, it’s goal has been achieved already.
There will yet be a period of referees learning when and how to use VAR. We could see a change in that, for instance, with a challenge system like many other sports employ. This is one of the most significant things to happen to football in decades. As a result, it is not just referees who will need to adapt. Players, fans, managers and television companies will get used to VAR over the coming months or years depending on current resistance to it.
Football, whether you agree with it or not, will stick with this. The initial leap to implement it was too arduous for this ‘trial’ to be rejected. It’s impossible to see the authorities going back on this now. As Steven Gerrard said on BT Sport at the weekend, getting the right decisions has to come first. The opponents of the system will remain, some based on philosophy, some based on practicality, but VAR is here, and it’s here to stay.